Lucero’s latest album goes by the name Women & Work, but this is the band’s Memphis record.
The band has called the Mid-South mecca home for all of its life, but singer and Arkansas native Ben Nichols is finally ready to let his longtime residency in Memphis soak through his alternative Americana sound.
“Over the last couple of records, I’ve kind of re-fallen in love with the amazing art and music that’s produced here,” he says.
“It’s a lot to take in and it’s a lot to be inspired by.”
Memphis almost serves as the nexus or capital to a whole swath of the Mid-South, including northern Mississippi and the Arkansas delta, Nichols says. Oddity, religious mysticism and southern gentility all seem to mix.
“That kind of surreal southern mythology kind of permeates the place,” Nichols says.
Nichols came to Memphis from Arkansas and still has a great affinity for home, but Memphis always exerted a strange, lustrous appeal.
“When I first moved here had a very romantic idea of this place,” he says.
Now Nichols says he has become more comfortable with being from Memphis and what his band sounds like. He continues finding new appreciation for Memphis’ musical history.
Nichols has also been able to experience some of that musical history first hand, after getting to play inside Memphis’ Sun Studios in the last year.
“I never thought I’d get to set up and play in there,” he says.
His bandmates have history and family roots that run deep in Memphis as well. Rick Steff and John Stubblefield logged tons of hours as a session musician. Steff also played with Hank Williams Jr. for several years. Guitarist Brian Venable’s father was a regular Beale St. player and Lucero’s current horn section boast an impressive resume as well, Nichols says.
“They have amazing stories of working with Al Green or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins,” he says.
It’s a band that looks like they’ve lived in bars and cut their teeth in a tough music town. Nichols says the band has travelled enough miles to be a rough-and-tumble, but first rate rock ‘n roll band.
“We look like a bunch of guys that have been on the road for ten years,” he says.
All that experience led into Women & Work, which ATO Records put out earlier this year. It follows up their lone major label bow, 1372 Overton Park, which was quietly released by Universal Records in 2009.
Nichols says it was the classic story of being signed by an enthusiastic A&R person who subsequently got fired.
“They released the record, but they didn’t do much else,” Nichols says.
That record was also the first to feature a horn section, which some fans vocally expressed a dislike for. So Nichols response for Women & Work — “You hate the horns, so here’s your f**king horns,” he says.
It’s an aesthetic that actually fits in with Lucero’s boozy country-rock style like it was always meant to be. Nichols says he sees the horn section as a natural evolution.
“It’s really fun playing rock ‘n roll with a horn section,” he says.
Nichols has also been emboldened to go in any direction he want to take Lucero in, musically.
“I can and will do anything in between,” he says.
So while the horns are dialled back to some degree on Women & Work, they still feature heavily on several songs including on the record’s title track.
Meanwhile, ATO has proven to be a better home for the band, as the new album has sold quicker from the release date than any other previous Lucero title.
Now the band of Memphis mainstays have become road warriors alongside Nichols. The band averages more than 150 shows a year and have more or less been on the road since March this year, supporting Women & Work.
The band has also worked to expand their following in ways beyond the usual club tour. Last summer found the band on an extended stay as part of the Van’s Warped Tour, which Nichols described as a blur.
“It’s just one hot parking lot after another,” he says.
The band had been invited to play Warped for number of years, but Nichols says he didn’t think the band had a place on a tour that mainly featured punk rock, hardcore and metal acts.
While Nichols says he enjoyed hanging out with fellow musician friends that were on the tour, Warped definitely wasn’t Lucero’s scene.
“We definitely stuck out. We definitely didn’t fit the mold,” he says.
“I like playing late at night in smoky bars and that’s kind of what we do.”
After Warped Tour, Nichols then struck out on his own for a short solo tour — on motorcycle. The two-week trek was mostly just a vacation, he says.
“Mainly it was an excuse to ride the motorcycle,” he says.
Nichols travelled on his 2007 BMW 1200 GS with just a backback and his guitar, riding about four hours a day and then playing with the hope of making enough for gas money. Nichols says he enjoyed striking out on his own like that.
“I didn’t have anybody else’s problems to deal with,” he says.
At the time only a few songs for the new album were written, but Nichols ended up playing the record’s title track and “I Can’t Stand to Leave You” on the tour. He says he liked shedding layers to his songs and seeing how they worked as a solo performance.
“It’s fun to take the songs and strip them down and see what’s left,” Nichols says. “The songs hold up just with guitar and voice.”
Lucero w/ Brad Hoshaw & the Seven Deadlies play the Waiting Room Lounge, 6212 Maple St., Monday, July 2nd at 9 p.m. Tickets are $17. For more information, visit onepercentproductions.com.